When we think of runoff, we look at the agricultural runoff from farm animals and how it pollutes our waterways with manure and chemicals. But what we often forget is the human waste that ends up polluting our water systems.
In today’s New York Times, it was reported from data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that “9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems—including those in major cities—have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere.” Many of the violators were never fined.
Whenever there is a heavy rain, there is the strong possibility that the wastewater treatment plants will overflow. That kind of spillage brings contamination. Recent studies have shown that when sewers overflow many people become sick after swimming in contaminated water.
In an article dated November 6th, the Los Angeles Times reported a ban in Malibu, Calif., that no new septic tanks will be allowed in the area and all existing tanks, both commercial and residential, must stop wastewater discharge within the next ten years. The prohibition in this affluent Southern California town came from testimony after testimony from surfers who got sick riding in polluted waters.
“The lack of adequate sanitation is a basic public nuisance issue," said Madelyn Glickfeld, a water board member who lives in Point Dume, as quoted in the article. "Here we are in one of the richest cities in the U.S., and we have sewage running down the street."
Yesterday, Fox News reported of a power outage that lead to a sewage spill in Oregon City, a city not too far from Portland, Ore. Approximately three million gallons of sewage has been dumped so far into the Willamette River. Signage was provided to warn the general public about the contamination.
The Boston Globe reported on August 7, 2007, the EPA approved a dumping ban for boaters in a three-mile radius from Boston Harbor following other bans in neighboring New England towns. After a $4 billion clean up of treatment facilities and sewer systems, Boston is one of the largest ports on the East Coast to have this kind of ban.
Robert W. Varney, administrator of the EPA's New England Office, was quoted in the article at a press conference with Boston area officials. "Enough is enough," he said. "It's time to stop discharging into our coastal waters. It's time to use pump-out facilities and create an expectation that these will be the cleanest waters in the United States and [that] anything less than that is unacceptable."
The EPA estimates that enough raw sewage enters our waterways on an annual basis to roughly fill the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and a report by the organization compiled in February 2004, our sewage treatment plants cannot handle the volume of waste. In many cases, the sewage systems in towns and cities across the nation are outdated or broken which leads to the kind of leaching that makes people sick.
The NRDC says that up to three and half million people contract illnesses from swimming in contaminated water every year. It is estimated that the ensuing medical costs from eating fish from contaminated waters ranges between $2.5 million and $22 million every year.
While agricultural runoff is still a very big problem, we cannot dismiss the issue of municipal sewage that pollutes our water. Lakes, streams, oceans, and groundwater are all affected by it. We swim in it. Our children play in it. We catch fish to eat from it.
How long are we going to continue to make ourselves sick?
Image courtesy of Connecticut Water Trails Association.